Rajwinder “Raji” Kaur, who was born in India, came to the United States in 1992 with her parents. When she was a senior at a Bakersfield high school, her father was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Influenced by what she saw her father going through while ill, she was determined to become a nurse and took CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) classes while still in high school.
Deciding not to attend a university or community college, Raji enrolled in Job Corps, a no-cost education and career technical training program administered by the U. S. Department of Labor that helps young people ages 16 to 24 improve the quality of their lives through career technical and academic training. This opportunity brought her to Los Angeles, where she took LVN (Licensed Vocational Nurse) classes and met her husband.
Their daughter Savannah was born in 1999 and another daughter, Brittany, was born the next year. In 2002, Raji said the marriage was coming apart and one day, she decided to leave with her two daughters.
“I was so alone and didn’t have any direction,” says Raji. “I didn’t have any family and only one friend. I always had good relationships but not with people I could depend on.”
A neighbor suggested one day that she move to low-income housing in Venice.
Raji soon became involved with the Oakwood community. Her children went to Broadway Elementary School and she would take them to the Oakwood Recreation Center. Because she didn’t have a computer at the time, she studied for her LVN classes at the recreation center.
Antoinette Reynolds, executive director of the Mildred Cursh Foundation in the Vera Davis McClendon Community Center, was an “angel sent from above” and became a good friend, Raji said. Her daughters Savannah and Brittany took part in the foundation’s free after-school program that also picks up the children.
“Being a single mom working 9 to 5 and trying to help with homework was such a hassle,” says Raji. “With the mentors in the program, it made my life a lot easier.”
Then, what every parent fears the most happened. Raji took the girls to see their father in Las Vegas, and on June 12th of this year, while playing with her dolls, Savannah was hit and killed by a bullet that police believe was targeted at her father.
Raji says that the grief was overwhelming and it continues to be, but she has had a lot of help from people she’s gotten to know.
“The community is awesome,” says Raji. “When tragedy strikes, they know how to bring it together.”
A celebration of Savannah’s life was held at the First Baptist Church in Venice. Raji credits pastor Horace Allen for helping her get through the first days of intense sorrow. He still continues to call to hear that her voice is okay and visits her home to pray.
“That’s a lot for the pastor to go through,” she says. “His words of wisdom every day help so much. Sometimes there seems like no hope, no matter how strong your faith is.”
The administration at Broadway Elementary School was also extremely supportive, providing counseling and collecting funds, she says.
“I didn’t expect that,” Raji says. The new principal, Susan Wang, and several of the teachers came to Savannah’s service, which “meant a lot to me,” she adds. She also acknowledges assistant principal Ilene Robbins, librarian Lea Floyd and Savannah’s homeroom teacher Steve Butts for their extraordinary kindness.
Financial and emotional support was provided from Cliff McCain, director of the Vera Davis Center, along with the staff of Venice 2000, Lois Webb of Tech Center, and Antoinette Reynolds of the Mildred Cursh Foundation. Raji says she also appreciated the support given by the office staff at Breezes Del Mar, where she lives.
“They were there to help me with Savannah’s service,” she says. “People in their position don’t usually do that.”
Neighbors also rallied to help Brittany. “My daughters were like twins,” she said. “They did everything together.”
Debbie Richardson, who lives next door, had always helped with the girls by watching them on weekends and continued to keep an eye on Brittany. Another resident in the building, Marisela Rodiquez, who works at Broadway, walks Brittany to school so Raji can get to work on time.
Raji told Pastor Allen that she was passionate about her nursing job, which was the only aspect of her life that kept her going. He suggested that she also start an Internet marketing business.
“When I went to the seminar it gave me the feelings I had before my daughter died,” she says. “So, I said ‘maybe this is a challenge and I can do it.’”
Raji knows that she is no longer alone. The outpouring of support to help get her through the dark days following Savannah’s death and concern for her welfare and that of her daughter has proven what she already believed.
“Being Indian, being accepted — sometimes love doesn’t have any colors,” she says. “There is only one race, which is the human race. It feels good not to be judged by your color, just known for who you are.”
Lending a helping hand to someone who is different beginning this holiday season and continuing throughout the new year changes lives, both the giver’s and the recipient’s.